BCS Champions & Running the Ball: What Can We Learn?

Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

A look at the BCS champions and where the bar is set for the country's best running title teams.

This is Part 2 of a four-part series looking into the Notre Dame run game. In Part 1 we looked at some of the situational stats of the Irish ground game since 2010 and some of the problems involved with the rushing attack. Today, we see if we can learn anything from the past BCS National Champions.

~~~

In Part 1 we attempted to zero in on the problems with the Irish ground game. We've seen Kelly dig Notre Dame out of its 12-year malaise with running the ball but with still plenty of room for growth.

Today we look at the national champions of the modern era (1998-2012, FSU '13 not included unless referenced separately) and how Notre Dame stacks up. It's often cited that the Irish need to do X, Y, and Z like these title teams in regards to running the ball and we'll look at some of these things in more depth today.

First, let us understand just how much offenses have changed over the past couple decades.

Statistically, the best offense of the Lou Holtz era was the 1991 squad that finished 10-3 with an upset of No. 7 Florida in the Sugar Bowl. That '91 team with Rick Mirer at quarterback rushed for 3,229 yards (2nd best of the Holtz era), 5.53 yards per carry (2nd best of the Holtz era), and was the tops by far in the Holtz era with 5,467 total yards and 6.6 yards per play.

Some offenses could turn it on back then and the '91 squad was indeed one of them.

That 1991 Irish offense was very special averaging 35.7 points per game with all top five team rushers averaging at least 5 yards per carry. It was definitely a run-heavy culture back then as only 3 major conference quarterbacks passed for 3,000+ yards and just 7 quarterbacks in the entire country threw for that many yards. In 2012, a total of 38 quarterbacks passed for 3,000+ yards.

30+ Point Club, Notre Dame, 1960 to Present

RANK YEAR PPG
1 1968 37.6
2 1996 37.0
3 2005 36.6
4 1992 36.4
5 1966 36.2
6 1991 35.7
7 1993 35.5
8 1977 35.0
9 1973 34.7
10 1967 33.7
11 1988 32.7
12 1989 32.8
13 1995 32.6
14 1970 32.1
15 1969 31.9
16 2006 31.0
17 2009 30.1

You can really see a difference though looking at the 1988 Notre Dame national championship team that gained 4,268 total yards. That's it. Baylor surpassed 4,268 total yards in their 6th game this past season while each of the last 3 Kelly offenses have all each gained more than 1,000 yards than that, as well.

Times have changed, indeed. Those 4,268 yards from 1988 would have placed Notre Dame 102nd in 2012 national rankings. Yes, the game on both sides of the ball was much slower but even in yards per play the '88 team would have finished 70th nationally in 2012. So when comparing teams from the past--at least offensively--we can only go back so far before the traditional numbers get distorted and somewhat meaningless.

Those 4,268 yards from 1988 would have placed Notre Dame 102nd in 2012 national rankings.

A lot is often made about the run-pass ratio of the Bowl Championship Series winners from 1998 to present and how Brian Kelly's offense is unlikely to win a title because his offense doesn't run the ball enough. Let's investigate that claim and see how more explosive offenses have become over the last 15 to 20 years.

Editors Note: The champions stats are with team kneel downs removed, Notre Dame's stats are not unless otherwise noted. This effectively makes the run percentages closer, but gives the champions better YPC averages. I know it's stupid but I realized this after doing the research and didn't want to start over.

Bowl Championship Series Winners (1998-2012)

YEAR TEAM YARDS PER PLAY
'98 Tennessee 4786 6.04
'99 FSU 4690 5.76
'00 Oklahoma 5174 6.07
'01 Miami 4998 6.60
'02 Ohio State 5135 5.72
'03 LSU 6040 6.15
'04 USC 5860 6.43
'05 Texas 6679 7.15
'06 Florida 5579 6.44
'07 LSU 6200 5.99
'08 Florida 6259 7.25
'09 Alabama 5727 6.13
'10 Auburn 7004 7.45
'11 Alabama 5605 6.55
'12 Alabama 6251 7.00

Remember how explosive and wildly fun those '99 Florida State and '00 Oklahoma teams seemed at the time? They are a lot like cell phone technology. Phones only 15 years ago seemed so high tech but are now painfully out of date. The 'Noles averaged nearly the same YPP as TresselBall™!

Obviously the 2001 Miami team is a bit of an outlier--from top to bottom perhaps the best team in college history--because 6.6 yards per play is still 5th best among the championship teams (and 2nd best among pro-style offenses) and the Hurricanes did average 42.6 points per game, good for 3rd best out of these champions.

I talked about how offense has changed since Notre Dame's last title team and it's even changed quite a bit since the early part of this century. The 4,998 total yards for '01 Miami is a really small number in retrospect although a lot of that has to do with the Hurricanes scoring 10 non-offensive touchdowns and probably being even better on defense than on offense. Nevertheless, four out of the top five scoring offenses of title teams from 1998-2012 have come since 2005:

  • 50.1 PPG- Texas 2005
  • 43.6 PPG- Florida 2008
  • 42.6 PPG- Miami 2001
  • 41.2 PPG- Auburn 2010
  • 38.7 PPG- Alabama 2012

However, I will note that in 4-year span from 1993 to 1996 we saw 3 insanely powerful offenses show us how athletes on offense were coming to rule the future. Florida State scored 41.2 per game in 1993 at 7.00 yards per play, Nebraska scored 53.1 per game in 1995 at 7.15 per play, and Florida scored 47.0 per game in 1996 at 7.04 per play.

Florida State won the 2013 national championship with a BCS record 51.6 points per game in addition to a BCS record 7.76 yards per play.

To keep in the theme with offenses becoming Herculean we just had Florida State win the 2013 national championship with a BCS record 51.6 points per game in addition to a BCS record 7.76 yards per play.

The lowest scoring BCS championship offense was Ohio State at 29.2 points per game. When the Irish made it to the title game last year they came into the tilt averaging 26.7 points per game and finished the season at 25.8 PPG. Notre Dame will have to be well into the 30's in scoring average to field a title-worthy offense.

Now let's take a look at the run percentages of the BCS winners of the past.

BCS Winners Run Percentage (1998-2012)

YEAR TEAM PER PLAY RUN %
'10 Auburn 7.45 68.6
'08 Florida 7.25 61.8
'05 Texas 7.15 63.9
'12 Alabama 7.00 63.2
'01 Miami 6.60 55.0
'11 Alabama 6.55 58.2
'06 Florida 6.44 53.8
'04 USC 6.43 52.9
'03 LSU 6.15 59.1
'09 Alabama 6.13 62.9
'00 Oklahoma 6.07 47.1
'98 Tennessee 6.04 65.2
'07 LSU 5.99 57.6
'99 Florida State 5.76 48.3
'02 Ohio State 5.72 68.7

Half the people look at that chart and think CORRELATION DOES NOT IMPLY CAUSATION while the other half think THE BEST TEAMS RAN THE BALL A LOT THEREFORE YOU HAVE TO RUN THE BALL A LOT TO BE THE BEST.

The truth is likely somewhere in the middle of those two ways of thinking when playing the game at the highest level. Many great teams run the ball a lot but calling more run plays won't mean you'll be a great team with a successful and efficient offense.

Does anyone remember the 2001 Bob Davie team running the ball 70.8% of the time? How'd that work out? Averaging 19.4 points per game and 4.3 yards per play, that's how.

At any rate, we saw 2013 Florida State break BCS champion records this year while running the ball just 53.0% of the time, and if you're keeping score at home, they only gave it to their backs 47.5% of the time. They may not have run the ball a lot, but when they did they were very productive: 2,896 yards, 5.79 per carry, and 42 touchdowns.

I looked at Notre Dame situational stats in Part 1 now let's compare those numbers to the recent national champions.

*Here I'm using the averages of the National Champions from 2007 to 2012 versus the averages of Notre Dame 2010-13.

1st Quarter Rushing

STAT IRISH CHAMPS
YPC 4.90 5.25
% 50.5 56.4

With all these stats the 2010 Irish season is going to drag down a lot of the numbers. That's something to keep in mind. Notre Dame ran the ball 51.9% in the 1st quarter when removing 2010, for example.

Overall, Notre Dame has been fairly close to the production of the champs in the first quarter.

2nd Quarter Rushing

STAT IRISH CHAMPS
YPC 4.14 5.64
% 45.7 55.5

Here's Notre Dame going off the rails in the 2nd quarter, as pointed out in Part 1, put into even sharper focus when looking at the game's best teams. The champs are still more pass-happy than their overall rushing splits and the Irish take that imbalance to more of an extreme.

This is the "money making" quarter for great teams when sizable leads are built heading into halftime. Notre Dame is 1.5 yards per carry below their rushing production which is a large discrepancy absolutely killing the team from experiencing the benefits enjoyed by elite teams.

3rd Quarter Rushing

STAT IRISH CHAMPS
YPC 5.31 5.49
% 50.0 64.0

Notre Dame has been very good at halftime adjustments and been a borderline great running team in the third quarter.

Being able to have decent sized leads at this point in the game is an issue. Title teams are far more likely to be winning big by this point, and hence, their rushing splits are going up while Notre Dame is still staying balanced.

4th Quarter Rushing

STAT IRISH CHAMPS
YPC 3.66 5.57
% 57.3 75.0

Here we see the poor 4th quarter rushing pointed out in Part 1 (the 1.91 YPC difference here is beyond enormous) and the champions now completely in cruise control but still dominating as they nurse large leads. A comparison between the 2012 Alabama and Notre Dame teams is instructive here.

Alabama was leading 9 teams by 20+ points going into the fourth. Notre Dame led 3 teams by 20+ points.

Alabama led going into the 4th quarter in 12 of 14 games. Notre Dame led in 9 of 13 games. Not a huge disparity.

However, if we treat a season as one long game Alabama headed into the fourth up by 318 points. Notre Dame was up by only 101 points.

Alabama was leading 9 teams by 20+ points going into the fourth. Notre Dame led 3 teams by 20+ points after the third quarter.

Those 3 large leads for Notre Dame in 2012 were Navy (+30), Miami (+31), and Wake Forest (+31). The Irish ran the ball 74.3% of the time in the fourth quarter of those games.

Notre Dame had a lead going into the fourth of two touchdowns or more in 4 games. Alabama had such a lead 10 times---quite a stark difference.

First Down Rushing

STAT IRISH CHAMPS
YPC 4.96 5.82
% 55.2 67.2

Notre Dame's YPC is low here with a really poor 2010, but they've improved a lot in 2011-13. Nevertheless, you can see championship teams having a good deal more success on first down and running it more often.

3rd Down Rushing

STAT IRISH CHAMPS
YPC 3.15 4.65
% 34.4 43.4

I'd be remiss if I didn't speak to offensive systems with these numbers. For example, Auburn ran the ball 54.3% of the time on third down and was the only champion to do so more than half the time. Such is the design of their offense. On the other hand, Alabama in 2011 only ran it 36.3% of the time on third down which is closer to Notre Dame's 4-year average.

Still, the champions are getting better production out of more carries. This is very a significant edge.

3rd & Short Rushing

STAT IRISH CHAMPS
YPC 3.53 4.83
% 67.1 74.3

Notre Dame gets quite run heavy on third and short but still not as much overall as the champions. The lack of production is still a big difference as well, although the 2012 Irish squad was really good here and they ran the ball just a little more than the champions average.

What is interesting is that the champions converted 64.75% of their third and short opportunities and Notre Dame isn't far behind at 62.58%. Even with a YPC that needs work this suggests the Irish may be best served running more on third and short.

Redzone Rushing

STAT IRISH CHAMPS
YPC 2.47 3.06
% 55.1 70.5
TD 14.25 27.67

Ah, the controversial redzone.

You can see Notre Dame's rushing here isn't THAT bad in comparison but the champs are running it far more often and scoring over 13 more rushing touchdowns per season than the Irish. This would seem to suggest Notre Dame should stay a little more patient with the run game down inside the 20's.

Tie Game Rushing

STAT IRISH CHAMPS
YPC 4.57 5.49
% 51.5 58.4

Still better production for the champs. It's a pattern.

Notre Dame actually runs the ball more when tied (51.5%) versus the total rushing percent of all plays.

However, Notre Dame actually runs the ball more when tied (51.5%) versus the total rushing percent of all plays.

2008 Florida and all three Alabama title teams actually pass more when tied in comparison to their overall rushing percentage. Saban's 2009 team ran the ball 62.9% of the time overall but just 52.7% when tied. The 2011 team went 58.2% and 53.4% and the 2012 team went 63.2% and 54.9%.

Rushing When Losing By 1-7 Points

STAT IRISH CHAMPS
YPC 4.99 5.20
% 44.8 46.8

Here things looks quite favorable for Notre Dame. It just goes to show that while Kelly may sometimes be impatient with the run game when losing it's really been isolated to a few high-profile instances and he's not much different than the rest of the coaches on the country's best teams.

This can be a hard point to consider for some myopic fans who don't watch other college football teams play.

~~~

So why do these title teams run the ball so well?

Is it because those teams stress the run more, devote more practice time, develop this identity, and grind teams down much easier late in the games? Sure, those things play a part. But football is so inter-connected with the rest of the team that there's more to it than vague and romantic notions revolving around 'toughness.'

Fans love to think that running games exist largely within a vacuum and that the best teams can point to where they're running it and the opponents are helpless to stop it. Any fan with an average understanding of football should know this is far too elementary.

Great football teams have good defenses, productive passing games, and they don't turn the ball over. This leads to large leads which in turn allows the team to run the ball late in the game. And if the run game is setting the tone to some varying degree there is a passing game backing it up being productive and damaging too.

Overall Passing

STAT IRISH CHAMPS
% 58.6 63.3
YDS. 3195.7 2680.3
YPA 7.2 8.4
TD 22.5 24.0
INT 13.5 5.6

We already know the championship teams throw the ball less but overall they're more accurate, more explosive when they do throw, and they are actually tossing more touchdowns than Notre Dame. Of course a huge key to success is throwing half as many interceptions.

The one season under Kelly when the interceptions were in the single digits they posted quite a fine record.

Red Zone Passing

STAT IRISH CHAMPS
ATT. 60.2 49.6
COMP. 30.2 25.3
% 50.2 51.0
YDS 228.5 216.3
TD 13.5 13.5
INT 2.75 0.33

As noted above Notre Dame is passing about 15% more of the time in the red zone than the champions but the title teams are getting relatively the same production while not turning the ball over.

Yes, from 2007 to 2012 those 6 national championship teams only threw 2 interceptions combined in the redzone. Actually, they were both from A.J. McCarron in the 2012 season. One was against Texas A&M--a game the Tide lost--and the other was in a close win against Georgia in the SEC title game. Getting smart QB play and protecting the ball in the redzone is ridiculously important and without such it can haunt even the best teams.

Notre Dame has thrown 11 interceptions in the red zone over the past 4 years.

In contrast, Notre Dame has thrown 11 interceptions in the red zone over the past 4 years. Even worse, the Irish have fumbled an additional 5 times inside the red zone, and lost another 3 fumbles on a play that just entered the red zone. Not to be out-done, there have been another 4 fumbles just outside the red zone between the 30 and 26-yard lines of opponent territory. That's a total of 23 turnovers inside the 30-yard line over 52 games.

Getting better and smarter quarterback play will help the run game, just like it did in 2012. This in turn should open things up for the entire offense, which will likewise allow Notre Dame to score more points. If they score more points there will be more patience pounding the ball in important situations and salting big leads away.

In the next installment for Part 3 we'll look at Brian Kelly's past and ask an important question about schemes and offense in light of the struggles we've documented through Parts 1 and 2.

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